From the mid-nineteenth century, Alappuzha (or “Alleppey”) served as the main port for the backwater region. Spices, coffee, tea, cashews, coir and other produce were shipped out from the inland waterways to the sea via its grid of canals and rail lines. Tourist literature loves to dub the town as “the Venice of the East”, but in truth the comparison does few favours to Venice. Apart from a handful of colonial-era warehouses and mansions, and a derelict pier jutting into the sea from a sun-blasted and dirty beach, few monuments survive, while the old canals enclose a typically ramshackle Keralan market of bazaars and noisy traffic.
That said, Alappuzha makes a congenial place to while away an evening en route to or from the backwaters. Streams of visitors do just that during the winter season, for the town has become Kerala’s pre-eminent rice boat cruising hub, with an estimated four hundred kettu vallam moored on the fringes of nearby Vembanad and Punnamada lakes. To cash in on the seasonal influx, the local tourist offices lay on excursion boats for day-trips, while in mid-December the sands lining the west end of town host a popular beach festival, during which cultural events and a procession of fifty caparisoned elephants are staged with the dilapidated British-built pier as a backdrop. Alappuzha’s really big day, however, is the second Saturday of August, in the middle of the monsoon, when it serves as the venue for one of Kerala’s major spectacles – the Nehru Trophy snake boat race.
The KSRTC bus stand is at the northeast edge of town, 1min from the boat jetty. For Fort Cochin, catch any of the fast Ernakulam services along the main highway and get down at Thoppumpady (7km south), from where local buses run the rest of the way.
The main boat jetty is on Vadai Canal, close to the KSRTC bus stand, from where the daily tourist ferries to and from Kollam run, as well as cheaper local (and less direct) ferries to and from Kottayam. Regular services also connect Alappuzha with Champakulam, where you pick up less frequent boats to Neerettupuram and Kidangara, and back to Alappuzha. This round route ranks among Kuttanad’s classic trips; the tourist offices can help you make sense of the timetables (also found at swtd.gov.in).
The station, on the main Thiruvananthapuram– Ernakulam line, lies 3km southwest across town, on the far side of Alappuzha’s main waterway, Commercial Canal. As the backwaters prevent trains from continuing directly south beyond Alappuzha, only a few major daily services and a handful of passenger trains depart from here. For points further north along the coast, take the Jan Shatabdi Express and change at Ernakulam, as the after-noon Alleppey–Cannanore Express, which runs as far as Kozhikode and Kannur, arrives at those destinations rather late at night. It is, however, a good bet if you want to get to Thrissur.
There are some great homestay possibilities if you’re willing to travel to the outskirts and pay a little more, along with some good options a taxi ride away in the surrounding backwaters and further up the coast. Nearly everywhere, whatever its price bracket, has some kind of tie-in with a houseboat operator: good-natured encouragement tends to be the order of the day rather than hard-sell tactics, but you may be able to negotiate a reduction on your hotel tariff if you do end up booking a backwater trip. Whenever you come, and wherever you choose to stay, brace yourself for clouds of mosquitoes.
Most of Alappuzha’s homestays and guesthouses provide meals for guests, usually delicious, home-cooked Keralan cooking that’s tailored towards sensitive Western palates.
One of the most memorable experiences for travellers in India is the opportunity to take a boat journey on the backwaters of Kerala. The area known as Kuttanad stretches for 75km from Kollam in the south to Kochi in the north, sandwiched between the sea and the hills. This bewildering labyrinth of shimmering waterways, composed of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets, is lined with dense tropical greenery and preserves rural Keralan lifestyles that are completely hidden from the road.
The region’s bucolic way of life has long fascinated visitors. And the ever entrepreneurial Keralans were quick to spot its potential as a visitor destination – particularly after it was discovered that foreigners and wealthy tourists from India’s cities were prepared to pay vast sums in local terms to explore the area aboard converted rice barges, or kettu vallam. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the houseboat tour industry has grown exponentially in both size and sophistication, and has brought with it major environmental drawbacks as well as increased prosperity. You can, however, explore this extraordinary region in lower-impact ways, too.
Top image: Houseboats on the backwaters of Kerala in Alappuzha (Alleppey) © Christian Ouellet/Shutterstock